To give something a name is to give it power. That’s a concept that I came upon years and years ago, when I was 14, experimenting with Wiccan religious beliefs. (I’m an atheist now, in case anyone was wondering. I don’t really like the term ‘atheist’ and prefer the term ‘adogmatic agnostic’ but I will get into that another time.) Anyway, I came upon this concept in a chapter in a book explaining why Wiccans don’t believe in Satan or Hell. To give something a name is to give it power, and why give power to evil or fear when you don’t have to? Made sense to me. Still does. 

To name something is also to define it, to capture it, to round up a bunch of concepts–like sweeping leaves into a pile– and say, ‘When you have this and this and this and this, it equals this.”  When you have 20 per cent of people in a given area experiencing food shortage, 30 per cent of people acutely malnourished, and 1 death per 5000 people per day, that’s the definition of famine, for example. 

And to name something, or someone, is also to create a precedent, to spawn rhetorical babies in a way, so everyone who comes into contact with the same person or phenomenon will use the same name you’ve used. Around the world, committees have been put in charge of modernizing various languages to fully describe the modern world, using words from their own language instead of cherry-picking from English (or Spanish, French, Chinese or Russian depending on geography). Someone decided that in Inupiak, you would no longer say computer, or ordinateur, but qaqasauraq. and so a word was born. 

So is labelling something good or bad? 

I was at work today doing research for a piece, which may or may not air (although I’m hoping it will) about a guy who is rowing up the St. Lawrence from Montreal to Percé, to raise funds for a foundation that works against bullying. That really struck a chord with me. The guy’s profile said, “Father of a son living with dyspraxia…”

What in the world was dyspraxia, I wondered? So I Wikipedia’d it. Somewhat oddly, the French definition was thorougher than the English. “A problem with motor capacity which limits the body’s ability to do automatic voluntary movements.”

Sounds pretty tough.

I read further: 

Motor development difficulties: clumsiness, lack of coordination, difficulty in executing voluntary and coordinated movements such as walking, biking, swimming, playing ball, cutting food, dressing, tying shoelaces…

As a child I kept tripping over things (and sometimes still do), I had trouble taking off my shirt until I was about 9, I learned to tie my shoelaces at 12 and to swim at 15, both in ‘adaptive’ ways which I taught myself or learned from my friends, different from the ways other people were taught, and I never did learn to ride a bicycle…

…difficulty with handwriting…

I had horrible handwriting until about age 13 or 14 and was dragged through the mud about it several times by teachers…

…difficulty with mathematics and problems comprehending mathematical facts…

I was always horrid at math, and I mean horrid, it was all I could do not to fail the classes outright, which no one seemed to understand because I was generally decent in school

…speech difficulties…

I never thought I had any kind of speech-related anomaly (in contrast to my motor skills and math issues, which I was only too conscious of) but someone must have heard something because I had to deal with an hour a week of speech therapy for five years.

Among the possible consequences: carelessness, neglect of one’s own physical appearance and lack of self-confidence due to the fact that a dyspraxic child grasps his or her difference. Dyspraxic children tend to withdraw in on themselves, which can have consequences for their social lives. Organization is a real difficulty for adult dyspraxics, These organizational problems can be seen with all manual tasks. 

Flashbacks: My father digging papers out of my disorganized backpack and half-shouting “Can’t you take a little pride in your work?” My grandmother asking me some question and me responding “I don’t care how I look.” Low self esteem from having my difficulties pointed out to me constantly, in nice and not-so-nice ways. Myself at sleepaway leadership-skills camp, closing myself in my room with a knights-and-dragons novel while the other kids played volleyball or basketball, and not giving a damn. A social-skills deficit which my mother once thought was on the autism spectrum but I now think just came from lack of fulfilling human contact. 

The English Wikipedia cites more interesting things.

Increased propensity to lose things, problems doing things that require several steps in sequence, feeling more comfortable with structured, repetitive work tasks. Learning left from right very late, difficulty doing physical tasks,  problems with opening jars, locking and unlocking doors and doing housework. Problems with spatial awareness and sense of direction. Developing elaborate, wonky coping mechanisms. Well, they work.

Family members, housemates, teachers, school staff, acquaintances. Making fun of me, sometimes gently, sometimes less gently, for those very things.

The causes are unknown, but it has been observed that greatly premature babies are often dyspraxic. 

I was born more than two months early. 

Well, that’s that, then. It has a name. 

Dyspraxia, depression, trichotillomania, all of which result in a weird form of “social anxiety” and low self esteem (the “social anxiety” was diagnosed by my research supervisor). 

My father comes from an era when things like the characteristics I mentioned above were treated as personality flaws to be overcome, or, if not, as “quirks.” He attributes my hair-pulling, for example, to “nervous energy.” 

The 21st century is the age of clinical labels though. Someone who was “crazy” is now living with depression, or schizophrenic or bipolar, so on and so forth. Someone who was “hyperactive” now has “attention deficit disorder”, someone who was “angry’ now has oppositional defiant disorder, or a form of depression, or post-traumatic stress. Someone who was clumsy or disorganized is “dyspraxic,” someone who had trouble with reading or math or language acquisition now has a clinical diagnosis of some kind. Someone who was called  socially awkward now has Asperger’s. A label. 

Labels help people to understand what is going on with their bodies and minds, regrouping a list of sometimes disparate symptoms into a helpful little box. It can be reassuring.

But are labels always good? A personality flaw or a lack of natural ability in a given area can be worked on, improved, with the right kind of guidance. You can learn to be better at math, or to handle anger or anxiety better. A label makes a given condition sound like a disease. What can you do with a disease? Get medical treatment, or wait and hope it blows over. You can’t really do anything. 

I feel like labels add clarity, but take away at least some agency from the labelled. If you feel like the things you don’t understand are the result of a mistake or a personality flaw, you at least feel like they can be worked on, overcome. A label helps you understand why you can’t do something, but reinforces the fact that you can’t. A diagnosis is reassuring but stultifying in its own way. 

What do you think? 

About msmarguerite

Young Quebec City-based freelance journalist. once and future nomad. I blog about life, about travel, about things I notice and every so often about work. I enjoy language learning, singing, swing dancing, skating and...other stuff, sometimes. My heart is somewhere in East Africa, Haiti or Eastern Europe. English, français, русский, malo slovensko, un poco de espanol, um pouco de português ndiga ikirundi, mwen ap aprann kreyòl...
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3 Responses to Words

  1. breyonne says:

    I have been given many, many labels. They helped me for a long time. They helped me to explain my experience. But I realized recently that they have stopped working, and how. The problem is that, while I have moved on, my labels haven’t. So now when I use them, they no longer seem authentic to me. Sure, I still have periods of not being able to leave my house, but I feel awkward saying “agoraphobic”. Sure, I go entire months unable to see hope in any given situation, but saying “depression” seems to limit the experience for me. I could go on, as I have been given–and have taken on–many labels, but they’re not important. What is important for me is that, while I still struggle with different aspects of different diagnoses as they have been defined by boards of professionals (well-meaning or otherwise), these labels are not changing anything about my life anymore. They don’t give me hope about treatment, they don’t improve my relationships (and in fact they negatively colour my interactions with mental health professionals, who judge me on my labels before they’ve even met me and absolutely refuse to listen to a word I have to say), and they don’t help me live my life on a daily basis. I agree with you: they simultaneously help make sense of, and “other” (my word, not yours). What I have begun to do is just try to take each day as it comes, and refrain from using the DSM-V to describe myself to people, or to myself.

  2. You have the most lovely complexion. You have always been kind. You leaned to ice skate and when you spin, the sheer beauty of it can make me weep. You are a world traveller who speaks many languages and continues to learn more. You are my joy. Your name is Ruby which is all the label you need.

  3. kdub155 says:

    Firstly, I love this post. I always found your intellect very intimidating in undergrad, and you’re positively brilliant, as seen above.
    Secondly, I couldn’t agree with you more re:the duplicitous nature of labels. On the one hand, they serve as a relief, a reason, a voice that says, “It’s not your fault” and carries some of the responsibility for your individual difference. But as you say, giving up responsibility is giving up power and the possibility of change.
    My personal opinion as to what to do about labels is to acknowledge them to prevent confusion of self and others, but leave them at the door from there. If I were to sit around and think about the intricacies and complexities of my diagnoses (one of which is dyspraxia), I’d be a puddle of useless. But if I was unaware of the reasons behind my difference, I’d indulge in an overload of self blame. I think it’s a fine balance which I need to evaluate every so often to stay emotionally healthy.
    I hope you explore this issue more, and (selfishly), I hope you do it on the blog. I really enjoyed reading this.
    Take care,

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